Exploring Ladakh’s Turkic links

Owing to its geo-strategic location, Ladakh has historically played an important role in ancient trade especially the Silk Route. It was the melting point of culture that connected the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia, China and Tibet. The presence of the two-humped Bactrian camels in Nubra valley is living evidence of these historical links. There was a special connection between Ladakh and Turkestan in Central Asia. I was reminded of this history recently as I watched the popular Turkish series called Ertugrul.

Ladakh was part of an important feeder route to the main Silk Route trader. It is thus not surprising that merchants from Central Asia who visited Ladakh had a significant influence on its social, cultural, and political spheres. There was an intermingling of culture, ideas and ideologies and in some ways, this link also became one of many gateways through which Islam reached the region. Traders from Turkestan married local women and settled in Ladakh and integrated within its social fabric and had a major impact on the socio-cultural life of Ladakh, especially its Muslim communities. Two major groups that are still present in Ladakh are the Dards and the Arghons. While the Dardic community traces its long history into the prehistorical era, the Arghons are of Turkic origins. All of this came to my mind as I watched Ertugrul, which is about the Turkic tribe called Kayi who invaded Constantinople, which was controlled by Orthodox Christians at the time and went on to found the Ottoman Empire.

While watching the serial, I kept thinking back to my own community in Zangskar. I saw many similarities between them and the Kayi. Perhaps a Turkic Muslim trader had somehow managed to reach Zangskar and decided to settle down in the valley. In Zangskar, the most common second name for a Muslim girl is Khatun. On a personal note, my maternal grandfather named me Zainab Khatun when I was born. As I was growing up, I somehow did not like the second half of my name as it seemed very old fashioned. I thus had it removed officially at some point and replaced it with Akhter. Now, I realise that my original name was a classic name and that my grandfather was perhaps ahead of his times.

In Ertugrul, I noticed that the second name of almost all the women was Hatun. For instance, the lead character is called Halima Hatun (The ‘K’ is silent in Persian). The word Hatun was used as an honorific for women during the Ottoman period.

I was also struck by the clothing of the people in the series, especially the womenfolk. The style, pattern, and especially the headgear is very similar to that of the Muslim community of Zangskar. In the past, this kind of headgear with a small round cap decorated with ornaments inside and a long flowing chador was worn by almost every grown-up woman. Nowadays, it is limited to marriages and to special occasions. Today, if you attend a Muslim marriage in Zangskar, it is customary for the bride’s friends to wear this traditional headgear. Some elderly ladies still wear a round cap below their long scarves or shawls, although these are general without ornaments. I looked through my personal archives and found the photograph used above. It is of my grandmother, the late Hajji Fiza Khatun. She is wearing a traditional Ladakhi Muslim dress with traditional jewellery and the unique head gear complete with flowing ornaments attached to it. This headgear is strikingly similar to those worn by the women in the Turkish series.

Another striking similarity that struck me is the sword dance performance during marriage processions. When Ertugrul marries Halima Hatun, the groom’s friends led by Turgut perform a sword dance to local music. In Zangskar too, the groom’s friends perform such a sword dance to on the sounds of traditional Ladakhi music. As far as I know, this sword dance is only performed by the Muslims of Padum during marriage ceremonies. While other communities in Ladakh and Baltistan do perform sword dances it is not a part of their marriage ceremony as it is in Padum.

Similarly, a number of Turkic words have become an integral part of Ladakhi language today, while many words in the two languages sound very similar. For instance, the Turkic word for snow, water and onion are Kar, Su and Tsoan, which is very similar to their Ladakhi equivalents of Kha, Chhu and Tsong. Even the wooden bowls and spoons used by the Kayi in the series is similar to items traditionally used in Ladakh. Many people still use a wooden container to churn curd and make butter even today and the wooden cylinder to churn butter tea.

It is said that wealthy Turkic traders, mostly Arghons, donated money and gifts to construct the first Mosque in Leh. The relatively new Central Asian Museum in Leh depicts these historical connections between Ladakh and Central Asia. Many of the carpets and other gifts donated by these traders are now housed in this museum. Many Turkic Arghon families of Ladakh are known to have donated antiques, artefacts, and manuscripts from their family to the museum.

More recently, the Galwan valley has been in the news as the site where India and China had a violent face-off in June 2020 with casualties on both sides. This valley was named after Ghulam Rasool Galwan, who was a Ladakhi adventurer with Turkic ancestry who assisted many European and British explorers in the 19th Century. The Galwans remain a prominent Muslim family in Ladakh even today.

It is fascinating how a TV series can ignite one’s imagination to explore one’s own heritage more closely. Though Dirilis Ertugrul was started in 2014, its popularity has spread across the Indian Subcontinent, especially amongst Muslim communities. It is now streaming online and is accessible to a much wider audience. I am watching this series and look forward to exploring more fascinating connections between Ladakh and its neighbouring regions.

By Dr. Zainab Akhter

Dr. Zainab Akhter works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Understanding the India-China standoff in Ladakh

The Changpas are the nomadic community that lives in eastern Ladakh. They are generally the first to encounter soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the event of a face-off. Heavy snowfall in the winters, force the Changpas to leave valley floors and climb the mountains in search of winter grazing lands. Since there is no formal demarcation of the LAC between India and China in these remote areas, the Changpas often unknowingly move very close to the LAC where they may encounter PLA patrol parties.

This is how trouble started in 2008 when PLA troops asked a group of Changpas to move back and initiated a policy of ‘pushing back’ and following the trails of the Changpa’s winter footsteps. This resulted in an inch-by-inch intrusion of the Changpa’s winter grazing lands. In later years, these intrusions starting affecting the daily life of border villages and resulted in an increase of face-offs and even fist-fights between the Indian and PLA soldiers along the LAC. The current standoff between India and China on the banks of Pangong-tso and the massive build-up of Chinese troops on the other side of the LAC indicate a shift in policy from an ‘inch-by-inch’ intrusion to an all-out aggressive posturing. In this article I will try to trace the relevant signs and the impact of such standoffs on local communities.

Local perspective

Since the border has never been clearly demarcated, it leads to contested perspectives. This has become a major challenge for the Changpas and communities living in villages close to the LAC in Ladakh such as Demchok, Chusal, Dungti, Phobrang, and Chumur. These communities face a two-pronged problem: firstly, they are excluded from the benefits of development schemes due to the remoteness of the region wherein the local administration and others make little effort to reach them. Secondly, their proximity to the LAC has become a curse for them, especially in winters when the Chinese soldiers refuse to allow them access to traditional winter grazing grounds and keep a tight check on their movement.

So far, the modus operandi of the PLA has been to start patrolling the Indian side of the LAC. If they come face-to-face with Indian troops, it results in a faceoff. However, if they do not meet anyone, they leave behind conspicuous signs of their presence in the form of biscuit wrappers and other materials to strengthen their claim to the land. Such activities have been taking place in the frontier areas of eastern Ladakh but have largely been ignored and under-reported.

In 2008, Chinese soldiers uprooted the tents of the Changpas from their winter grazing lands near the LAC and drove them away. In an interview with NDTV after this incident, a Changpa proclaimed, “Last year this was our place, but now the Chinese Army has driven us away and uprooted our tents. This has made our lives very difficult.”

The pastures traditionally used by the Changpas and local villagers have been shrinking steadily due to the push back policy adopted by the Chinese army. Unfortunately, border patrolling units of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the army cite border agreement between India and China and prevent the Changpas and local villagers from venturing near the LAC in many areas.

These villages and areas lack basic amenities, which indicate the absence of interventions by the civil administration for developmental activities. In contrast, reports claim that that the Chinese have invested heavily in developmental work on the other side of the LAC. In 2018, villagers and nomads from Demchok, which is located along the LAC in eastern Ladakh, held a protest ‘over the lack of infrastructure and basic facilities (roads, communication, electricity, ration), and the restrictions imposed by the Indian army to even construct toilets or graze cattle in their own territory’. Such protests have been taking place for a while but the lack of media attention means these grievances rarely reach the relevant authorities. Communication technology remains very poor in these regions though locals report that cell phone and radio signal from the Chinese side are much stronger than Indian ones.

The standoff

The standoff between India and China near the Pangong-tso that started in early May 2020 has resulted in a full-scale troop mobilisation by both countries along the LAC in Ladakh. According to a recent report in The New Indian Express, “China initiated the standoff as an objection to road construction activity on the Indian side between Finger 3 and Finger 4 and also on an arterial ling [sic] to Galwan Valley being built as an offshoot from the 255 km long Darbuk [sic]-Shyok and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) road”. In Galwan valley, this road built by the Border Road Organisation comes close to the LAC and China is objecting to it. Pangong-tso is 135 km long and according to India, it controls around 45 km of the lake while the rest is under Chinese control. Along the northern bank of the lake, there are protrusions of land into the lake at many points, which are called fingers and numbered. According to India, the LAC passes through Finger 8 and it patrols till Finger 4. However, over the last few years, China has started patrolling till Finger 2 and has started stopping Indian soldiers from patrolling beyond Finger 2.

On 5 May, Indian soldiers proceeded beyond Finger 2 for their patrol when they were stopped by PLA troops. Since then, troops from the Indian Army and PLA have been engaged in a standoff along different points on the LAC. Such face-offs are not new as the two countries have a different understanding of the LAC. However, the Chinese are believed to be more aggressive. At the same time, sources report that China has also increased its infrastructure on a large scale along the LAC over the last few years. This has been corroborated by accounts from local Changpas and villagers on the Indian side of the LAC.

A month has passed now and the standoff remains unresolved. The two sides are engaged in dialogue but the standoff is expected to last longer than the one at Doklam in 2017 that lasted for 73 days. Furthermore, the scale of PLA deployment, which reports estimate to be over two brigade-strong, indicates sanction from Beijing and is not limited to local military commanders.

But why are the Chinese so desperate this time? According to a report in Hindustan Times, in military terms Chinese dominance and deterrence posture in the DBO sector is an effort by the PLA to prevent India from executing its plan for rapid border infrastructure development. This summer is believed to be the last chance for China to act as the Durbuk-Shyok-DBO road will be completed this year and significantly improve India’s capacity to rapidly deploy in the area near the LAC in Ladakh. This prospect worries China.


At least six rounds of talks have been held between Indian and Chinese military commanders on the ground to de-escalate the tensions along the LAC. However, these talks have failed to achieve any breakthrough. After these failed attempts of dialogue, the two countries are exploring politico-diplomatic interventions to diffuse the crisis. India has declared that it will not allow the ‘status quo’ to be changed unilaterally by the PLA. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Doklam team, which includes National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat and Foreign Minister, S Jaishankar are back in action to diffuse the current standoff in Ladakh. This team had crafted India’s response to the Doklam standoff. Additionally, top commanders of the Indian army met for a three-day conference in Delhi in early May, where one of the main points for discussion was the ongoing standoff with China.

Some observers have pointed out that if the standoff is not resolved quickly through dialogue, it will undermine the progress that India and China have made over the past few years, especially through the two informal summits between Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and Chinese President, Xi Jinping, first at Wuhan, China in 2018 and then at Mamallapuram in 2019.

Ladakh is geo-strategically very important for India as it shares frontiers with China as well as Pakistan and is also home to the mighty Siachen glacier that gives India a vantage point over Pakistan. In addition, Ladakh is also an important tourist hub. There are clearly no special developmental schemes for border villages that are at the frontline of such conflicts. The Changpas who graze their livestock near the LAC are the eyes and ears but we need to heed their complaints about the Chinese PLA, which have been ignored so far.

This suggests that a fresh Ladakh policy must be charted, which should include suggestions from local communities including ones who live in the frontier regions. We also need to bridge the void between frontier villages and the local administration. This standoff at Pangong-tso in May 2020 has highlighted the fact that things are not well along the LAC in Ladakh. Infrastructure development in frontier villages and their integration in the mainstream are some important steps that can be included in the new policy framework for Ladakh.

By Dr. Zainab Akhter

Illustration by Suhail Lone

Dr. Zainab Akhter works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

The lingering pain of Partition

The Partition of India and Pakistan was not just a separation of land but also a division of thousands of families. The mainstream discourse on Partition and divided families primarily focus on Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir valley. The pain and anguish of divided families in Ladakh and Baltistan rarely receive a mention. This is a personal issue for me. My grandfather, the late Haji Abdul Hamid (1 December, 1938 to 18 May, 2020) lived with the pain of separation from his father after the ceasefire line was drawn in 1949 to separate India and Pakistan.

My grandfather was born in Padum, Zangskar in 1938. He was the only brother to his three sisters. News of the horrors of the Hindu-Muslim riots that marked the Partition started to reach reached Zangskar valley in 1947. The valley has Himachal Pradesh in the south and Kashmir in the west. These horrific stories ignited fear amongst the minority Muslim community in Padum. A group of men from the community decided to get organised to protect themselves in case the violence reached Padum. My great-grandfather, the late Habibullah was one of these men. In 1948, members of Gilgit Scouts, with support from the newly-formed Pakistan, reached Kargil and a few of them proceeded to Zangskar. In Padum, some members of the Muslim community viewed these individuals with hope in the context of the communally-charged atmosphere in the Indian subcontinent in the wake of the Partition.

We shall keep the story of how this small contingent of Gilgit Scouts survived in Padum for another day. In the summer of 1949, Indian troops managed to push Pakistani forces from Kashmir and Ladakh and they allowed a safe passage to the Gilgit Scouts troops in Padum. Some men from Padum’s Muslim community decided to join these retreating troops. This included my great-grandfather. My grandfather was 11-years-old at the time. Before he could comprehend what was happening, my grandfather was left behind in Padum with his mother and three sisters. The group from Padum travelled with the retreating Gilgit Scouts troops along the Kargil-Skardo road. The letters written by them at the time suggest that they did not intend to settle down in Baltistan but planned to return to Padum once the conflict ended. Unfortunately, the conflict ended with the creation of the ceasefire that separated Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh. Subsequent conflicts between India and Pakistan extinguished any hope of their return.

In the absence of his father, all responsibility for the family fell on my grandfather. Once my great-grandfather realised that he was not going to be able to return to Zangskar, he married a local girl in Baltistan and settled in Sermik. The following years were tough for the family as there was no communication between them across the Line of Control (LoC). Slowly, the finality of his father’s absence dawned on my grandfather. He yearned to meet him and the death of his mother within a few years further intensified his pain and anguish. In those days, there were no means to earn daily wages in Padum. So a few years later, after his marriage, my grandfather moved to Himachal Pradesh in search of work. During our storytelling sessions, he would describe this practice of moving out for work. He would mention that the Muslims of Padum would generally travel for work to Chamba in Himachal. Once his children had grown up, my grandfather travelled to Leh to train as a veterinary assistant. He hoped to save enough money to someday travel to Baltistan and meet his father. Once he returned to Padum, he worked as a veterinary assistant as well as an Amchi (traditional Tibetan medicine system) dentist in the absence of doctors in the region. He also opened the first hotel in Zangskar by the name of Hotel Greenland. He would often mention the hotel to his father in letters they exchanged in chaste Urdu. On the other side, Habibullah proudly recounted these stories to his children—two sons and a daughter with his second wife—in Sermik.

(Above) Haji Abdul Hamid and his step-brothers offering prayers at their father’s grave in Sermik, Baltistan
(Top photo) Family members from both sides of the LoC at their reunion in Skardu, Baltistan

The deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan crushed all hopes that father and son had nurtured of meeting face-to-face. Habibullah passed away on 17 December 1987 with an unfulfilled longing to meet his family in Padum, especially his son. On this side, the death of his father shattered my grandfather. He still did not lose hope and continued exchanging letters with his step-siblings in Sermik. Since there was no formal system to exchange post between India and Pakistan at the time, the only way to send letters and gifts to relatives across the LoC was through Haj pilgrims who would hand them over to pilgrims from the other side. I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories of pain and anguish in the wake of the Partition. His love for storytelling and my interest in these stories made me one of my grandfather’s closest confidants.

Let us now fast forward to 2009 by which time the internet had started reaching these remote mountain regions. One of my cousins from Sermik was in Islamabad at the time. He remembered ‘Hotel Greenland’ being mentioned by his mother and decided to search for it online. Since the hotel was no longer functional by this time, he found nothing online. He then collected the names of other hotels in Padum and started mailing them to ask about Hotel Greenland. One of these hotels suggested that he get in touch with me. We managed to get in touch with each other and continued speaking over social media. During these conversations, I learnt that our relatives on the other side of the LoC were yearning to meet my grandfather.

This was around the time I had started my doctoral research on the topic that has always fascinated me: India-Pakistan relations. One of my case studies was to understand the impact of theatre groups on cultural diplomacy between the two countries. By 2014, I was able to establish contacts in Pakistan for my study and I was able to accompany a theatre group that was invited to perform at a festival in Karachi organised by the famous theatre activist, Sheema Kermani. It was during this trip that I met with my cousin for the first time in Lahore and he accompanied us for the whole journey. During our time together we started discussing the possibility of organising a trip for my grandfather to visit Baltistan.

Once I returned to India, I kept exploring ways to make this dream a reality. During our conversations, my grandfather would often say, “I have fulfilled all my responsibilities and even performed the Haj thrice. Now, my only wish is to visit my father’s grave.” Around this time I attended an event on India-Pakistan relations in Delhi, where the late Madeeha Gauhar of the Ajoka Theatre in Lahore was also invited. At this event, she introduced me to someone from the Pakistani embassy in Delhi. I mentioned my case to him and he promised to help. In due course, we completed all formalities and in September 2017, my grandfather, parents and me finally embarked on a journey to Baltistan. We travelled along the Amritsar-Wagah-Lahore-Islamabad-Muree-Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-Babusar-top-Chilas-Skardo-Sermik route. It took us almost a week to complete this journey.

A caravan of vehicles from Sermik was waiting to welcome us in Skardo. It was as if the whole village was there to greet us. The moment I saw my grandfather hugging his brothers tightly, I realised that his ‘last wish’ was starting to come true. When we reached Sermik, people crowded around us and kept touching us to check if they were dreaming. I could see questions in their eyes as tears of happiness and sadness mixed freely in the village that night. I was surprised to learn that there is a Padum community in Baltistan—these are the descendants of the men from Padum who had settled there. Those men have all passed away and their families are now scattered across Baltistan but all of them proudly call themselves “Zangskar-pa”.

We visited the graves of many of the men from Padum. For me, it was most satisfying to watch my grandfather visit his father’s grave, which was marked with bold Urdu letters stating: “Habibullah, Padum Zanskar”. There were tears of joy and pain. It felt like a circle was finally complete and his yearnings and pain finally eased after that ‘union’.  The news of our arrival spread like wildfire and from the very next day to the day of our return, we had a stream of visitors from every corner of Baltistan. We also travelled to different areas to meet people from the Padum community and collect their letters and gifts for their relatives in Zangskar.

This was the most emotionally satisfying journey for all of us. We then returned to India and continue to remain in touch with our relatives in Baltistan through social media networks.

The trip to Baltistan happened at the right time for my grandfather. He remained ill for almost a year from 2019. In February 2020, he had to be air-lifted from Padum and admitted to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Kashmir. He then returned to Padum and breathed his last on 18 May, 2020 in his beloved homeland.

All said and done, he was most satisfied that he was able to travel to Baltistan. Today, when he is no more, the Padum community in Sermik and people in Padum, Zangskar are together in mourning his passing. After all, he was one of the only people who have been able to make that long and rigorous journey to Sermik to connect the dots and pray at his father’s grave. That journey has set the ball rolling and opened avenues for other families to dare to dream about meeting their relatives on the other side of the LoC.

Photograph and text by Dr. Zainab Akhter

Dr. Zainab Akhter works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.